The weather in Lanarkshire was so appalling in February that I don’t think I left the house more than twice or thrice. Turns out it was a trial run for the current lockdown, and it gave me a chance to catch up on books put by for winter. I find I cannot read books set in cold snowy climes unless it is the same outside. Is it just me?
In 1934 Christiane Ritter decided to join her hunter explorer husband on the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen. She stayed for a year and recorded her experiences in A Woman In The Polar Night (translated from German from Jane Degras). Her expectations of having time to “read thick books in the remote quiet, and, not least, to sleep to my heart’s content” were to prove somewhat naïve.
Home became a hut on the shore of a Norwegian fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement. Her sole companions (when they’re not away hunting), her husband Hermann, and another hunter, Karl. She soon discovers that “there is enough to do in running the hut, in cooking, baking, darning and writing”. The business of survival is tough enough in subzero temperatures in daylight. Imagine the challenges during 4-months of total darkness! Visiting the neighbours involves life-threatening treks over frozen fjords, glaciers and crevasses.
The eyes of a hunter see things differently, particularly when that playful seal swimming in the fjord is the only source of dietary vitamins and the difference between life and death. When Ritter arrives, with all the sensibilities of middle European civilisation, she is appalled at the food she must prepare and eat. She becomes entranced by polar foxes, who are friendly and unaware of the intentions of humans. One of them, Mikkl, befriends her, and this is the beginning of her love affair with the Arctic …
which prevails despite “polar mentality” or depression setting in during the dark months. The cure is “the joy of the returning light” and the beauty of the frozen landscape, which Ritter, with her painterly eye, describes so beautifully. Nearing the end of her stay, she is suffering from what Karl terms “Spitsbergen mania” – an inability to leave the place, despite some terrifying fights for survival. But she must leave her idyl to return to her daughter and a stormy Europe, civilisation she now sees as “suffering from a severe vitamin deficiency because it cannot draw its strength directly from nature”.
Isolation plays a key role in the latest release from Peirene Press. The protagonist in Claudio Morandini‘s Snow, Dog, Foot, translated from Italian by the winner of the inaugural Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, J Ockenden, is a misanthropic hermit. Living high in the Italian Alps, Adelmo Farandola descends into the village only to bulk buy his provisions for winter; his only company a mangy old dog. Whether such solitude is good for him is questionable, for the dog talks to him …
In favourable season he wanders and hunts, though not always in season. Which explains why he is not happy to keep chancing upon a young mountain ranger. When winter comes, he and the dog are snowed in. In marked contrast to Christiane Ritter who always ensured that there was an accessible entry/exit to her shelter, even when Arctic storms raged for days, Farandola allows snow to pile up and bury his. (This was my first inkling that all was not going to end well.) As winter progresses and provisions deplete, there are some very odd conversations
(The dog sighs)
”Stop that!”, the old man bursts out at last.
“What was I doing?”
“No, I wasn’t. Although I’d have every excuse to. First you invite me to stay, and then you find out you don’t have food for two. You’re an idiot.”
“If I catch you, I’m cooking you.”
Like Mikkl, Ritter’s polar fox, this animal has a lucky escape, the thaw arriving just in time. But as the snow melts, a gruesome discovery is made. A foot emerges from the frozen snow, followed by a whole human corpse. Our hermit is reluctant to hike down the mountain to report the find. Is this due to his natural antipathies, valid concerns about the dangers of the trek in the half-frozen terrain, or something else entirely?
Of course by this time I am quite convinced that Farandola is completely mad. The dénouement confirms it, though it’s surprising how lucid a mad man can be …
There were times when this novella made me laugh out loud. It is preposterous but with some great comic timing. All the while though, the action is dark, leading ultimately to a very dark place indeed. While providing no great philosophical insights (except perhaps that total long-term isolation is really bad for you), Snow, Dog, Foot is terrifically entertaining. One of my favourite Pereines.